The importance of formal art education cannot be over-emphasised—but if anyone is ever to be charged with trying to do so, let me be the first to plead guilty.
Unless you have exceptional outsider gifts and can offer new perspectives on life through a rational other world view—as opposed to just bad drawing and a palette like a pizza—then a battery of traditional skills is an essential starting point for a career in art.
Would you hire a plumber who runs water through a power duct? So why buy a painting from some lost soul who has not the faintest idea of line, tone, composition and human anatomy?
Art is not just about recreating the look of things, but at its best is about new insights and fresh understandings, about lifting the spirit and offering possibilities for defining our place in the world.
Look at a Madonna by Raphael, or a Rembrandt self-portrait and tell me I am wrong. Of course, all this is must seem a bit airy-fairy when you are 12 years old and want to play footie but there are practicalities too.
Without a thorough training in art where will our architects come from? And the people who design cups, chairs, a new computer and the sleekest headset and all the other things that get us through the day?
Surely it cannot be a coincidence that the cars designed in East Africa include the defunct Nyayo and the Mobius?
Recognising this, it is not surprising, given that in Kenya at least art is not an examinable subject in the public school curriculum, many laudable and privately funded attempts have been made to fill the vacuum.
Artists have held classes, run schools and taken on pupils (Patrick Mukabi being one notable example) and NGOs such as the Goethe Institut and Alliance Francaise have tried to plug the gap with visiting artists, tutors, seminars and plenty of encouragement, while artists’ centres including the Kuona, the GoDown and in Uganda the Weaver Centre are there to help.
And now it is a pleasure to record that another group has entered the fray.
Called the Lewa Art Education Project, it is run by the Realist painter Camille Wekesa, who in 2016 moved from Nairobi to Nanyuki, on behalf of Lewa Conservancy in Laikipia.
The project is tightly focused on schools the conservancy has built around Lewa Downs; initially at Ntugi and Lokusero, with the focus recently being on Lokusero, near Isiolo Town.
It is supported by The Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation, established in 1995 by Tana Matisse, wife of the late art dealer and collector, Pierre Matisse who was the youngest son of the renowned artist Henri.
The steadfast support for the arts by Tana Matisse, who died in 2001, shaped the Foundation’s programmes, which continue to support the appreciation of visual and performing arts and arts education. They emphasise accessibility to institutions and art practices as a way to promote identity, creativity and cultural literacy.
The Foundation has pledged $7,500 a year for a minimum three years; a sum matched dollar for dollar by an anonymous American philanthropist, giving a base income of $45,000 plus money for materials and stipends from other private donors.
Wekesa who takes not a dollar from the kitty—her work is voluntary because it is a project close to her heart—has created a database of more than 30 professional Kenyan artists to help with Friday-to-Sunday art classes.
They proved popular with an average of 30 students aged 11-17 learning drawing, colour theory, printmaking, collage, photography, painting, pottery and sculpture. Creative thinking was emphasised.
The pilot project saw workshops run by artists as diverse as Mukabi, Beatrice Wanjiku, Justus Kyalo, Maryann Muthoni, performance artist Syowia Kyambi, sculptors Gakunju Kaigwa and Kevin Oduor, photographer James Muriuki and print maker John Silver.
Practical study sessions
More recently Fitsum Woldelibanos, Allan Githuka, and Peterson Kamwathi were among those who weighed in with practical study sessions.
The rotating database of professional artists allows new artists to enter the project so that continuity can be built into the programme over the long term.
The theory is excellent but unfortunately the real world has intruded with the classes now put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic . It is hoped to restart them shortly.
Said Wekesa, “The experience and advice to young students is invaluable in terms of their creativity and opens their eyes to new opportunities in different fields of work.“
Which mirrors my belief, precisely.